What Your Cat Wants You to Know: An American Ex-pat Perspective

Guest post for Notes From Africa, by 2Summers

I’m an American ex-pat – I’ve been living in Johannesburg for the last nine months. I’m also a fervent cat-lover. I left two wonderful cats behind when I moved here. They’re in very loving, capable hands but I still miss them every day.

Walter, one of my kitties back home, sleeping peacefully on the bed. ©2Summers

When I read Lisa’s recent post, What Your Cat Wants You to Know – Really?, I was compelled to comment. The post discusses a topic that has always interested me and has become especially relevant since I moved to South Africa: the indoor-outdoor cat controversy. Lisa invited me to write a guest post presenting an American perspective on this issue and I accepted with pleasure.

I grew up in the 1970s and 80s, in a semi-rural area about an hour from Washington, D.C. Our cats divided their time between inside and out, but they were mostly out. Sometimes bad things happened to our cats – at least one was run over by a car and another one fell off of something (I can’t remember what) and broke his leg. The leg eventually had to be amputated. Our dogs also came in and out as they pleased and often met untimely deaths. My parents never considered bringing the animals in full-time though. It’s just not the way things were done at that time, in that part of the world.

(My dad still lives in the house I grew up in and he still has indoor-outdoor cats. His oldest kitty, Satchmo, is nearly 20 and going strong. Satchmo is by far the longest-living pet Dad has ever had.)

Satchmo, my dad’s elderly cat, and me, before I moved to South Africa last year. ©Tenney Mason

Over the last couple of decades in the U.S., the conventional wisdom on how to provide the best life for a housecat has changed, especially in urban and suburban areas. Letting cats outside is considered dangerous to the cat and potentially destructive to the natural environment. Unless you live in a rural area, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a vet who would recommend letting your cat outside. Animal rights groups and shelters advocate vehemently against it, and the majority of urban and suburban cat owners wouldn’t think of letting their cats run free.

One of my favorite blogs, the Cult of Otis, is written from the point of view of an American domestic cat. Otis and his brothers never go outside and his “Guardians” are very much against the idea. Check out Otis’ blog (which is hilarious, by the way), to learn more about the American indoor cat perspective. Also, here is some background from the Humane Society of the United States.

As an adult living in the D.C. suburbs, I had indoor cats. They were only allowed out into the fenced-in backyard, and only under supervision so we could ensure they didn’t escape. Keeping the cats indoors was never a conscious decision for me. I first lived in an apartment complex, where letting cats outside was strictly prohibited. My next two houses were townhomes, where in theory I could have let my cats outside – there were a few neighbors who did so. But I never considered it. My cats escaped a couple of times and I was always terrified for their safety. And even though my cats loved visiting the backyard when given the chance, I think they were (and are) happy living an indoor life.

When I arrived in Joburg and moved to the suburb of Melville, I soon discovered that the cat situation here is different. I haven’t met a single South African with an indoor-only cat. Fwuffy (sic), the cat belonging to my neighbor who lives in the cottage attached to our house, goes in and out as he pleases, and other cats frequently visit our property (much to Fwuffy’s chagrin).

Fwuffy on the prowl in our side garden. ©2Summers

Several years ago I saw a television show on Animal Planet about how indoor-outdoor cats are the norm in the U.K., despite the fact that cats are wreaking havoc on native bird populations in some areas. (The RSPCA’s website provides a middle-of-the-road position on the issue but certainly doesn’t advocate for cats to stay indoors.) I thought it strange at the time.

But since my move, I understand better. First, window screens and storm doors don’t exist here, just as they don’t exist in the U.K., so it would be hard to keep your cat in even if you wanted to. Second, it’s nice to see Fwuffy prowling around outside and climbing the tree to reach his favorite lookout point on the roof. Third, I must admit that the cats around here seem to handle themselves pretty well outside. (Although how they navigate the massive electric fences that surround most houses is beyond me.)

A neighborhood cat fortunate enough to live in a house that is not surrounded by an electric fence. © 2Summers

Caveat: Although Melville is within the Joburg city limits, it is a much more cat-friendly environment than the outer suburb where I lived back in the States. The houses are more spread out and there is a lot more green space and less traffic. The weather is also far less harsh.

The big question: Having now been exposed to both sides of this hot-button issue, what is my current position?

The answer: I don’t know. But I really want a cat.

An unnamed kitty looking at me through the window. She spends lots of time on our deck. Someone is definitely feeding her but I don’t know if she has a real home or not. I’ve got my eye on her. ©2Summers

Text and photographs (unless otherwise specified) are © 2Summers.


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Categories: Guest Bloggers, Random


I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at https://notesfromafrica.wordpress.com and http://southerncape.wordpress.com (my photoblog)


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35 Comments on “What Your Cat Wants You to Know: An American Ex-pat Perspective”

  1. April 26, 2011 at 10:04 am #

    As a person who is allergic to cats and has tried dating cat lovers, I don’t mind letting the cats out. I had a roommate with three cats when I lived in Irvine, Calif. (somehow my allergies went away after a month living there) and two of her cats were indoor/outdoor. She let them come and go as they pleased and they never slept outside. In the area we lived in though, there were wilderness hills that contained California cougars (the wild animal variety, not the typical 40-plus Newport Beach female variety that spends her days at South Coast Plaza mall on the hunt). One day, Ginger the youngest cat, went out and never came back. It was assumed that she was attacked by a cougar. So I guess the drawback there was living in an environment where the cats can be hunted by other wild animals.

    In my opinion, as long as they don’t pose a threat to the natural order of things in the environment they are in, you should allow the cats to roam freely.

    By the way, Satchmo looks very human.

    • April 26, 2011 at 12:07 pm #

      You’re right, Satch does look human! He has an interestingly shaped face — I think he’s got some Siamese in him. He’s a street cat originally from inner-city Baltimore though.

      Joe also has allergies and we’re wondering if he can gain immunity by living with a cat. We may be testing this out someday soon.

      • April 27, 2011 at 8:24 am #

        Seems like I developed the immunity over night. One day I had to stock up on Benadryl, the next, I was okay with cats climbing over me.

        Raised in Baltimore! That must be one tough cat!

      • April 27, 2011 at 9:41 am #

        He is tough. So tough, in fact, that he makes life miserable for Dad’s other cat. She’s basically a second-class citizen.

  2. April 26, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    Lisa, thanks so much for giving me the opportunity to do this. Guest-posting is fun and I enjoyed writing a different kind of post from my normal stuff.

    • April 26, 2011 at 10:46 am #

      I think it’s a total win-win situation then – you had fun; my readers get entertained without me doing anything AND the writing on my blog gets elevated to a new level! 🙂 Seriously though, I do appreciate you taking the time to write this post, and explaining the other side of the debate. It seems the difference in lifestyle and housing really does result in a different culture of thinking on the issue.

      Walter and Satchmo are two really beautiful cats!

    • April 26, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

      It was such a wonderful surprise to meet another guest-blogging friend of Lisa like this.

      You write really well, and your cats are gorgeous! Walter looks like a total snuggle-bunny! 🙂

      Our cat is an indoor-outdoor come-and-go-as-she-pleases cat, but then we do live in a fairly cat-safe neighbourhood with lots of trees, and an enclosed garden.

      Her preferred sleeping spots vary according to the seasons – when it’s warm, she’s almost always outside in the garden somewhere, but when it’s cold, she prefers the various beds we have created for her (siiiggh…) all over the house… with a DEFINITE preference for the oil heater during the evenings. 🙂

      Luckily for us, she is not a roamer; there are lots of cats and dogs in the neighbouring houses, so she must have realised it is safer to stay within our boundaries.

      And also, luckily for us, she is not a hunter. 🙂 Birds and squirrels are completely safe!

      • April 27, 2011 at 9:50 am #

        Thanks Reggie! Sounds like a nice cat. I’m glad she is lucky enough to enjoy the best of both worlds.

  3. April 26, 2011 at 10:28 am #

    My cat was a city cat that was allowed to go outside, and is now a cat that lives on a game farm in the middle of the bush. While I lived in Belgium for three years I left him in South Africa because I knew he would not adapt to being an indoor cat. He loves lying out in the sun and prowling around the trees and bushes. From my perspective, I believe if you keep a cat you need to keep it in its most natural habitat which is not indoors. However, if I had to live in an apartment in a city I don’t know what I would do without him.
    He gets fed twice a day and very, very rarely catches birds although he has killed a few squirrels that stray too close to our cottages.

    • April 26, 2011 at 10:35 am #

      Yes, I think it would certainly be cruel to force a lifelong indoor-outdoor cat to become an indoor-only cat (although the Humane Society claims you can). I don’t know what the best answer is, really. There are so many homeless cats out there that need owners, and so many prospective cat-owners who live in places where it’s just not realistic to let your cat outside.

      At any rate, sounds like your cat is very lucky 🙂

  4. Gary de Beer
    April 26, 2011 at 11:43 am #

    Nice post Heather and some interesting observations you have raised about the differences in cat culture around the world.

    I once came across a website that proudly showed the extremes (in my opinion) that some US cat lovers have gone to by building elaborate outdoor runs for their pets (even in farm country).

    I have grown up always having at least one (more often more) in the house and have never considered forcing them to live only indoors. (The only time I never had a cat was the 1st year on my own when I had a small flat – which I thought would have been cruel).

    My brother on the other hand has two cats in a fourth floor flat and is stressing constantly that they are either getting out or going to fall off a windowsill or balcony. Cats are supposed to be a calming influence on your life aren’t they?

    All our cats have always been rescued strays and after ‘fixing’ I have found that it changes the creatures’ behavior quite significantly with respect to their wider roaming tenancies. And of course some cats will have it in their nature to be totally happy with staying indoors all the time.

    Can I test a totally unscientific observation I have on cat behavior with your audience?
    Longer hair breeds = happy indoors : True or False?

    • April 26, 2011 at 12:08 pm #

      Interesting theory on long-hair vs. short-hair. All my cats have always been short-haired so I’m not sure if this is true. Curious to hear other opinions. Thanks for reading!

  5. April 26, 2011 at 2:55 pm #

    Dear Africa,
    ~~Some people are appalled by outdoor cats eating their “song birds.”
    I understand that.
    But I’m such a contradiction….I put my cats out (which they love) and then I chase and discipline them if they have a cute little rabbit or chipmunk inside their mouths.
    I’m not sure what the answer is….
    I want them to have the best of both worlds, I guess.
    Can’t we all just get along?
    xx Great Blog.

    • April 26, 2011 at 3:06 pm #

      Thanks! As far as I’m concerned, a loving home is the best home for a cat, whether it’s indoor or outdoor or both.

  6. April 26, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    My husband and I have two amazing cats we bought from the Kitty Shelter in Johannesburg. They grew up in our apartment and spent most of their days lazing in the sun falling on the couch. Occasionally I let them out into the balcony/hallway. We would discipline (the water bottle method) them to stay close to our front door, which usually worked. They would also sit on the balcony wall, looking at the trees. These little “outings” were terminated after the clumsy brother tried to walk around a potted plant, but slipped and fell three stories. By grace alone he survived with hardly a scratch. From that day forth they were only allowed to watch the trees from behind the security gate. Opening the door for them to watch the outside world has almost the same effect as showing a Barney video to a toddler.

    Currently we are in the US for a 6months stint. Our two kitties went to stay with their “grandparents” who has a lovely big yard. They were slowly introduced to the garden, and they love every minute, we are told. They have now become typical indoor-outdoor cats. They love being with people indoors, but balance it out with chasing bugs, leafs and, unfortunately, birds outside. My parents keep all their cats, ours included, inside at night, protecting them from cars, dogs, people and other night dangers. Also making sure they are not a nuisance to any one else.

    I know they are going to be very upset to have to go back to being apartment cats when we come back, but it is amazing how adaptable cats are. We will bribe them with yummy treats and are already planning a massive scratching post/tower/toy thing to keep them occupied. In the end, indoor or outdoor, all they need is love, I guess.

    • April 27, 2011 at 9:53 am #

      I know why he survived that three-story fall…because he’s a cat! Luckily he’s got 8 lives left 🙂

      I’m sure it will be a tough transition for a while when you get back. But luckily cats have very short memories, and they’ll be so happy to see you, I’m sure they will forget grandma and grandpa’s yard quickly.

  7. April 26, 2011 at 11:22 pm #

    Ah, Heather, I bet you miss your cats! When we moved to Vietnam 2 years ago, friends adopted our cats, but we kept our dogs and moved them with us, but I still miss them terribly. My cats have always been indoors and like yours only outside under supervision–usually a harness and leash! Keep an eye on that kitty outside your door!

    • April 27, 2011 at 9:57 am #

      I never tried the leash idea but I’ve heard of others who’ve made that work. If the gray kitty ever becomes ours, I suspect she will have to be a traditional indoor-outdoor though. It’s in her blood and we have too many open windows and doors around here.

  8. eremophila
    April 27, 2011 at 1:23 am #

    It’s a really interesting subject. I’ve lived in the suburbs and in rural areas, and cats are always part of my life. As pet owners, I believe we are required to provide those in our care with a safe environment that doesn’t greatly impinge on their natural tendencies – which obviously means compromises along the way.
    I’d like to mention something about diet as I think it pertains greatly to the hunting instincts of cats. My cats are always fed on raw meat. I do not use tinned or dried food because of the hazards to their health of feeding them ‘fast food’. Many cats go to hunt because even though they may be fat, they are in effect ‘starving’ for real food. Address this and their behaviour changes.
    While mine have the freedom of the outdoors during the day, I keep them confined at night.
    About allergies, short-haired cats are generally less liable to cause problems, and there’s always the hairless breed, although I have to admit I feel this is taking it too far!
    One last point…..there are humans who spend most of their time in an artificial environment and there are others who manage to survive quite well by blending both.

    • April 27, 2011 at 10:00 am #

      Bravo to you for feeding your cats real food. My first cat, Wallace, died very tragically of diabetes (although he was never overweight) and I think it was because of the store-bought cat food. If we do get a cat here I’m going to try to follow your lead. Joe will have to adjust to the hair though — hairless cats are out of the question!

  9. April 27, 2011 at 8:44 am #

    I am appalled to learn that people think it’s okay to keep cats indoors for life. It goes against their very nature. Yes, there are risks, but I suspect it’s the cat owners who are bothered by that, not the cats themselves.

    I think it’s cruel. Might as well stick them in a factory farm with the chickens.

    • April 27, 2011 at 10:08 am #

      Hmm, this is very thought-provoking. I would certainly never have thought to compare my indoor cats to factory farm chickens, but I suppose in some ways you have a point.

      It’s kind of similar to the zoo debate. There are some very professional zoos that work hard to promote conservation and do everything they can to give their animals a good life. In many ways the animals have much easier, safer lives than their counterparts in the wild. They live longer, they don’t have to risk their lives to eat, and they don’t get horrible diseases. But does that make their lives better? Are the zoos inhumane, even though they are often providing homes for abused and neglected animals that can’t survive in the wild anyway? Sigh…I really don’t know.

  10. April 30, 2011 at 7:23 am #

    I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as a “indoor-outdoor cat controversy”! Our cats in different homes and cities at various stages of my life all came and went as they pleased. Yes, there were some minor adjustments to the local bird population, but they sorted out some of the pests too!

    • April 30, 2011 at 7:32 am #

      I think the indoor-outdoor cat controversy is mainly in the United States. Here in South Africa most cats are indoor-outdoor cats. As to affecting the bird population . . . most of my cats have been “mousers” – great at catching rodents, but pretty pathetic at catching birds.

      Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment!

      • April 30, 2011 at 8:42 am #

        We Americans are good at creating controversies where there really shouldn’t be any. Look at our politics! 🙂

      • April 30, 2011 at 8:51 am #

        Sorry for butting in! I forgot this was your post . . . 🙂

      • April 30, 2011 at 8:52 am #

        Not at all – your post too!

  11. May 2, 2011 at 7:21 am #

    Hi y’all, I couldn’t decide which post to respond to, so I’m basically flipping a coin—consider this addressed to both of you.

    I grew up with cats, and in the 60s and 70s in Canada cats were always indoors/outdoors. That’s just the way it was. Our cats were always brought in at night, though, and I think that’s a good policy.

    I’m of several minds on this debate, but I think often it comes down to context: what makes sense? How can you balance safety concerns against enjoyment of life? Sometimes the situation defines the answer, and sometimes you have to make choices.

    If you live in a tiny apartment several stories up, the cat won’t ever be outdoors. Our current cat was rescued when my partner saw someone dump her in the alley behind our apartment building—she was abandoned because—it turned out—she needed medical attention. (We scooped her up, paid for the surgery and got a wonderful cat out of it.) For the first few years we had her we lived in an apartment and she showed no interest in going outdoors. She didn’t even want to go out into the apartment hall. Keeping her indoors was not a choice on our part, but it was also not a problem and she was very happy there.

    In other situations you have to make decisions about whether a cat should be indoors only or not. I can see a number of factors influencing the decision: how dangerous is it outside? are there cars? dogs? coyotes? irritable neighbours who don’t want cats using their gardens as a litter box or killing the birds? We moved from the apartment to a house, but still kept our cat inside, because the area was thick with coyotes, and you simply knew that if your cat left your fenced yard there was a good chance it would be eaten. (I once found a cat leg on someone’s front lawn while walking to the store, a powerful deterrant against letting our cat out.) So I occasionally carried her around the fenced yard a little, but she didn’t show much interest in doing more than that.

    I also think the cat’s personality plays into the decision. Some cats roam and ramble, others don’t. One of my previous cats was free to wander outside but rarely left the back porch. The current cat now goes out sometimes, because we moved to a much safer home in a rural area, but she doesn’t seem to want to roam much either. In winter she’s still an indoor cat, because we have no cat door, and I was taught (and firmly believe) that a cat should always have an escape route into the house if you let them out. But in summer we have taken to letting her go out when we’re out to keep a general eye on things. Our presence makes it much less likely that she’ll catch birds (she catches the occasional mouse in our house, but the only bird I’ve ever even seen her seriously stalk was a duck, which she eventually bluff-charged to make it jump). It’s much safer for cats here: cars are relatively few and far between, and we’re on an island and there are no large predators other than dogs. She likes sitting on the porch with us. She likes “going walkabout” with me: we walk out the door and slowly circumnavigate the house, doing a bit of sniffing and watching along the way, and then we go back inside. She now very much wants to be allowed out, having had the taste of it, but she’s not desperate to be out all the time. (In winter, if you let her out when she asks, she generally puts her nose out into bad weather, goes “ew” and demands to be let back in.)

    Overall, I think that if you have an indoor cat that hasn’t experienced being outdoors, it will probably be perfectly happy indoors. I do think it’s unkind to try to make an outdoor cat into an indoor one, though. I think that if you can set up your situation to let them outside while keeping them reasonably safe and avoiding problems with neighbours and birds, that’s the ideal, because they get so much pleasure from it.

    • May 2, 2011 at 9:15 am #

      Thanks so much for the comment. I agree with you on all counts. As with most controversial issues, there’s no right or wrong answer, in my opinion.

    • May 4, 2011 at 1:21 am #

      Thank you for visiting my blog and for leaving such an interesting comment. As you rightly point out, each case needs to be evaluated on its own merit.

  12. Ava Albrecht
    September 7, 2012 at 3:02 am #

    Cats should be treated like yours were when you were little. Their lives may be shorter or more injurious but they are happier… bottom line. If they could talk, they would tell us so. Cats who are older or prefer to stay indoors do. Cats who prefer to go out will wreak havoc inside until you comply

    • September 7, 2012 at 7:09 am #

      Hi Ava,

      I think that is a very good way to look at it. We keep our cat indoors at night (she kept getting beaten up by bigger cats), and let her roam around in the garden during the day. From very little she’s hated using a litter tray and would prefer to go outside regardless of the weather.

      Thanks for visiting my blog and leaving a comment! 🙂


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